Among the three sites distributed along the West African latitudinal gradient in the AMMA-CATCH observation system, the experimental setup in the Niamey area of south-west Niger samples the cultivated Sahel environment, for hydrological, vegetation and land surface processes. The objective is to investigate relationships between climate, land cover, and the water cycle, in a rapidly changing ... [Show full abstract] semiarid environment. This paper first presents the main characteristics of the area, where previous research, including the EPSAT and HAPEX-Sahel experiments, had evidenced a widespread decadal increase in water resources, concurrently with severe drought conditions. The specifics of AMMA-CATCH research and data acquisition at this site, over the long-term (∼2001–2010) and enhanced (∼2005–2008) observation periods, are introduced. Objectives and observation strategy are explained, and the main characteristics of instrument deployment are detailed. A very large number of parameters – covering rainfall, vegetation ecophysiology, phenology and production, surface fluxes of energy, water vapour and CO2, runoff and sediment, pond water, soil moisture, and groundwater – were monitored at local to meso scales in a nested structure of sites. The current state of knowledge is summarized, connecting processes and patterns of variation for rainfall, vegetation/land cover, and the terrestrial hydrologic cycle. The central role of land use and of its spectacular change in recent decades is highlighted. This paper provides substantial background information that sets the context for papers relating to the south-west Niger site in this AMMA-CATCH special issue.